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Seven Ways to Wrangle Your Back Story

If you’re like me, you just lo-o-o-ve telling the tale before the story begins. That’s because you care so much about your characters and you can envision where they were when they were three, and you know the whole cast of characters surrounding them at key moments in their lives. These people don’t only live and breathe for you; they’ve got reason for being, and you’re damn well determined to explain that to anybody who’s listening.

But then suddenly, the manuscript is cluttered with flashbacks. It’s dragging with dips back in time. And guess what? Your reader, or your agent, or your editor, is saying to you loud and clear: Here’s Where I Stopped to Rest.

I’ve got seven ways I wrangle my ever-burgeoning back story. Let me know what works for you, Wonder Women, Wonder Men, Wonder Humans & Creatures of Fabulosity!

#1: Back Story Can Be Many Things. Be Flexible.

Don’t define it as full chapters or even a page. Don’t insist on prologues as the only and most obvious place for back story. It can be one sentence, it can be 100, it can be–gasp!–a PHRASE. Yes. Let’s be clear that you can allude to what happened before in your story without making a big deal of it.

See the opening chapter of my latest novel, No Small Thing, at the end of this post, so you can read in bold where I insert bits throughout a present scene of dialogue, whether in summary or mini-flashback sentences, or via the dialogue itself, before and breaking into a couple paragraphs of true back story (scene and summary), and then I return to the main narrative.

My agent, Tara, helped me see that back story carried on far too long in chapter one and that I had to both shorten it and break it up or risk losing my reader.

#2: Do It With Voice.

We won’t notice back story if it’s told with verve, with snark, with anger, with the unique rhythms and diction of a character’s voice and the unique angle of lens. If back story is delivered with a certain point of view, it’s much easier to swallow. Easy for me to say: I prefer to write in first person. But if you’re working the third person, remember that third-person close point of view insists on a careful and direct lens as only the character sees and experiences things. How does the character see their own back story? Remember that as you deliver it.

In other words, if the voice is loud enough, it distracts from the time switch. We don’t care what era we’re in as long as this particular voice keeps telling us the tale.

#3: Ask: Is It Really Important We Go Back in Time?

Sometimes the present just speaks for itself. You don’t always need to hearken back to the original cause, the Prime Mover of someone’s character or fear. It might be better to immerse readers in a full scene. We’re best equipped to ask this question when the whole book’s written, so if I were you, I’d write all the back story, place it wherever you like, and then come back with a big, fat red pen with this question in mind.

#4: Leave Yourself Notes of Yea and Nay.

I’ve got so many questions running through my head when I write, so to not stop the flow, I leave Notes to Self, all the questions about the back story, in various places with yellow highlights. Example: NEED BACK STORY ON DAD’S RELATIONSHIP TO B HERE, or, REDUCE THIS BACK STORY. Just get it all out, then move on, and when you revise, listen to your neon-yellow reminders and that sixth sense you were getting about something missing or something too long.

#5: A Great Scene Cures All.

If you’re determined to take us back in time, do it well. Do it with scene that immerses, that gets the heart racing a little, that makes us live it along with whomever’s taking the journey.

Summary? The “telling” versus “showing” part? It works well if done right with voice and other techniques.

If you don’t know the difference between scene and summary, check out my posts on the key ways to improve both.

Make It Fascinating

Make It Fascinating, Part 2

#6: Worship the Word Count.

When you’re in revision mode, and revisiting your piles of back story (like I am), with a red pen poised like a scythe to wreak much-needed reaping, make it a goal to get the back story down by 50 words or more. Oh, heck, why not 500? Challenge yourself to make it tight as possible.

If you get stuck, see #2 and #5. If you’re doing both of those supremely well, who cares how long it takes to get this part of the story out? (Well, editors and publishing house budgets, or your publishing budget, sure.)

Stand ready to cut hard and unfeelingly at this stage of the process. Remember what the core narrative’s about–the question you ask and attempt to answer–and then let those words go, Marie-Kondo style, out into that good night.

#7  Trust the Process

Sometimes while in an early draft of a novel, it’s tempting for me to stuff back story in and over-explain something, like I don’t trust myself or the reader to “get it.” It’s also tempting to cut all back story in a mass-murder move because you think your story’s suddenly boring and no one will ever keep reading. Here’s a truth: it’s way to early to tell in a first or second draft if this is the case, or at least it is for me.

My process involves really getting to know my characters. They are not pawns in a chess game. They’re people with my goals and plans, sure, goals and plans meant to trouble their waters, but they often surprise me in a new draft what they can do as they seek to be fully human. When I rewrote No Small Thing this year, new scenes appeared to meet the challenge of tightening plot and suspense. Characters replaced one another. And back story got moved all over the place if not deleted entirely. That was I believe my fourth draft of the book (I do lose count) and I’m really glad that a) I did over-explain early on, to understand where Audrey and friends came from and b) I didn’t cut huge sections early on. With enough distance, I was able to cut hard in a later draft and piecemeal back story or remove it entirely.

If you need more meditation on the art of patience while writing, and how I have learned that going “super-slo-mo” is actually okay, check out this post:

Go Super-Slo-Mo Until It’s Time

 

Need a sample of how I integrate bits of back story in a scene? Here you go.

 

 No Small Thing, Chapter One Excerpt

 

“Coach, please! Let me!”

This is my workout before every guys’ basketball game: trotting behind Coach Hale, begging for a place on his bench.

“No.”

I’ve lost count how many times he’s said that to me.

“But I’m quick, you know I can dodge anything!” I’m huffing as I tail him down the athletic department hallway. “How often does the bench take a hit?”

“Audrey, I said no.”

“Coach Azzi says yes!” I’m Coach Azzi’s “manager.” She lets me sit on the girls’ bench and grab footage and audio. The woman gets me.

Silence as he stomps on to the gym. A former Division II basketball player, Coach Hale is only five-eight, but pure muscle, and strikes fear into the hearts of players with ten inches on him. But not me, nine inches shorter. The guy who hung the hoop in my driveway never scared me because I’ve seen a hammer make him cuss a blue streak. The dude knows I’m athletic, and though I be but little, I am FIERCE.

“Come on, Coach! I’ve got health insurance!”

“It’s a huge liability. NO.”

We’re feet from Athlete’s Alley, the tunnel into Gurney Gym, when I toss today’s Hail Mary: “1500 likes in the last hour, and 300 comments last week on the Threepeat show—

Coach spins around. We almost collide, as in my nose to his chest. “We don’t need the media.”

“It’s my SENIOR YEAR!” I holler.

“Your mom would kill me!” he hollers back, and storms into the gym.

Mom: 25 billion; Audrey: 0. I turn and hit the wall with the side of my fist. After all I do, covering his team—three straight years of amazing highlights, interviews, profiles—he won’t grant me this tiny request? “Dude, you NEED me!” I tell the wall.

That’s the real reason he said no: because my mother, Ellen Powers, says so. The guy who bought me my first hoop also buys the Mom propaganda.

Audrey is petite. Audrey is frail. Audrey is breakable.

When I was born, I wasn’t just a preemie: I was a micro preemie. So raw, barely cooked, my skin was blue, sticky, and gelatinous. At 23 weeks and two days old, I weighed less than one pound, 12 ounces. But I prefer 800 grams because it sounds bigger, and no one in America really knows how much that is.

My skin was so fragile and ready to tear, they had to treat me like a burn patient. The nurses wrapped me in plastic to keep me warm. Instead of Mom, IVs nursed me. They said the chaplain had tears in his eyes when he came to the NICU to baptize me, and that my dad had to leave the room. Those first weeks, no one thought I’d make it. Vegas would have put 5:1 odds against me. Maybe it’s good Mom’s not a sports fan or one to worship stats. Because I certainly wouldn’t have made the draft.

 

 

Make it Fascinating, Part 2

“Creative writing classes require scrupulous attention to a range of textual clues: stray connotations, sound, textures, and all other extra-denotative factors. Students learn to approach the craft of writing as if it were sculpture, where language becomes concretized.”

— Chad Davidson and Gregory Fraser, “Out of the Margins: The Expanding Role of Creative Writing in Today’s College Curriculum.” The Writer’s Chronicle, Volume 42 Number 3

Word Count for the Novel: 118,031 (1049 words added)
Page Count for the Novel: 443

What can I say? I had to add a new scene. Sometimes ghosts show up and you must write them in.

In my last post, I explored how Graham Greene harnessed scene and Lisa See, summary. With the guiding principle “make it fascinating,” a writer can also alternate between scene and summary in a hybrid paragraph, such as this character description of Albert in Eudora Welty’s story, “The Key.”

“He looked home-made, as though his wife had self-consciously knitted or somehow contrived a husband when she sat alone at night. He had a shock of very fine sunburned yellow hair. He was too shy for this world, you could see. His hands were like cardboard, he held his hat so still; and yet how softly his eyes fell upon its crown, moving dreamily and yet with dread over its brown surface! He was smaller than his wife. His suit was brown, too, and he wore it neatly and carefully, as though he were murmuring, “Don’t look—no need to look—I am effaced.” But you have seen that expression too in silent children, who will tell you what they dreamed the night before in sudden, almost hilarious, bursts of confidence.”

The first detail is metaphor: the man is equal to knitting, a wifely project of rough, homespun stuff. Who is the narrative voice giving us this equation? We don’t know, but we’re being told the man is “home-made.” He is pinned by this summative adjective and then the evidence follows immediately with an original metaphor. Then Welty snaps a direct shot of Albert, drawing us into the more objective camerawork with “a shock of very fine sunburned yellow hair.” Summary becomes scene, and then summary: we’re right back with the narrator who says, “He was too shy for this world, you could see.” By calling out to the reader, the narrator softens the blow of the generalization. We realize someone is in charge here but we aren’t repulsed by something as clunky as “He was a very shy man.” The narrator retreats behind a simile—the hands like cardboard—and resurges with “how softly his eyes fell…,” ending in an exclamation point. The narrator is carried away with emotion for her character, and this raises a reader’s interest. Back to the facts—Albert’s size relative to his wife, the color of his suit—but blending into summary again with two adjectives and then a speculation about his supposed speech. The narrator gives her mute character voice: “I am effaced,” as if he might generalize about himself. Then the analogy of the “silent children” appears, a comparison anyone can understand, and now we are standing back alongside the speaker contemplating the man through the pitying, analytical lens.

An excellent writing exercise is to try a character sketch following exactly her alternating pattern. As we get to know our own characters, we’re given to frequent generalization, a normal part of the drafting process. Might as well weave it in—you can always remove it later if it clunks—but weave it in with the goal of making it sing as loudly as sensory, action-packed scene detail.

Readers demand a lot. In between texting and twittering and general delusions of multitasking efficiency, we squirm at being told what to do and what to believe. If the writer chooses a telling voice, he must make it compelling. She has to bring the hard evidence, Law & Order style, somewhere on pages preceding or following. Authoritative tone and rich diction usually aren’t enough; I love it in Dickens and Austen, but if someone calls a story modern, I assume it will have the clout of forensic files and the whiff of TMZ—too much of train wreck to turn my eyes away.

Time to summarize about summary. Here’s a writer’s checklist from these last two posts of strategies that keep our summary significant:

• Is the subject intriguing?
• Is the summary chockfull of evidence (specificity)?
• Is the summary figurative?
• Does the summary address the readers’ need to be told something?
• Is the summary well-timed?
• Does the summary explore a universal truth?
• Is sensory description close at hand?

If you can’t meet most of this checklist, write the scene in the moment and see what trouble your characters get into.

In my next post, I’ll give a sample of how I revise to keep summary from being dull generalization that muddies the story.

Works Cited

Welty, Eudora. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Harcourt, Inc. Orlando, Florida. 1994. p.30.

Writing Goal: 150,000 – 170,000 words for the novel and a complete fourth draft ready by the AWP Award Series deadline. I’m also reviewing copy edits for the next NCTE book in my differentiated instruction series, Teaching Julius Caesar: A Differentiated Approach, forthcoming in 2010.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Elementary Prompts

• Pretend you are making a movie. Your words are like the camera, and they must capture everything you see. You are watching two people argue over something or a scene where a woman’s purse is snatched on a busy street. Describe what happens: what the people do and what they people say. Describe the setting and what the camera sees. The only thing you can’t describe is what is going on inside the characters’ heads.
• Now rewrite the scene from the point of view of one of the people who is telling us what really happened.
• Then write the scene from the point of view of the other person who is also telling us what really happened.
• Which version do you like better? Why?

Secondary and Adult Prompts

• Write a scene where two people are fighting. Write the scene three different ways: from third person objective (fly on the wall, film camera perspective), then from third-person limited (through the lens of one character), then from omniscient (through the lens of both characters and with any other editorial commentary that the godlike narrator chooses to comment). Which scene works the best? In other words, whose story is this, and why?
• Examine a piece of writing you’ve done. Highlight in yellow all the places where you show what happened: sensory description, dialogue, details, facts, and examples. Then highlight in blue all the places where you tell what happened: adjectives, adverbs, abstract nouns, generalizations, and opinion. Does your writing tend to be more showing or telling?

Make it Fascinating

“The scene is dull. Tell him to put more life into his dying.”
— Samuel Goldwyn

Word Count for the Novel: 116, 982 (1356 words removed)
Page Count for the Novel: 438

It doesn’t matter whether your storytelling is scene or summary; just make it fascinating.

When I coach other writers, I draw attention to where they use scene versus summary. In early drafts, many writers are more successful with scene: they capture my interest with the dialogue and sensory description, those cinematic strategies that put us right in the moment. When they launch into long passages of summary—generalization designed to move the action forward, encapsulate several years, or express a theme—they do that “telling” thing rather than “showing.” The effect can sometimes be analogous to a 9th grade essay, an unsure voice that’s lost the prior scene’s momentum, and so plain you’re begging for salt. Or, it can repulse a reader who doesn’t want the telling tone, that 9th grade teacher’s voice relaying information, explaining how you must interpret this story. Huck Finn is a picaresque novel where a young man confronts the racism of his society. “Daffodils” is about the Romantics deification of nature. Ugh—I didn’t come here to read the critics’ interpretations. Give me story!

This type of unfocused telling is normal for early drafts. My nascent stories overflow with it. To me it’s a required part of the process where author tells self, Here’s what I’m trying to do. Make this character a jerk, so I must tell everybody: “Many considered Joe a jerk.” Make that character’s upbringing tragic, so I tell everyone it’s a “tragic childhood.” We weave these “notes to self” throughout the manuscript, notes that eventually must be either recast or deleted.

Telling isn’t wrong as long as we make it interesting. The masters know how to write their summaries such that we can’t avert our eyes.

First, let’s clarify what I mean by summary’s other half (I won’t call it opposite, since they overlap so much in any paragraph and must partner together): “scene.” Think sensory immersion and play-by-play action, to the point where we trot breathless alongside those characters experiencing the moment. Graham Greene gives us a pure nugget of scene at the opening of his novel, The Heart of the Matter, and the reader can infer much from what is shown.

“Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. It was Sunday and the Cathedral bell clanged for matins. On the other side of Bond Street, in the windows of the High School, sat the young negresses in dark-blue gym smocks engaged on the interminable task of trying to wave their wirespring hair. Wilson stroked his very young mustache and dreamed, waiting for his gin-and-bitters.”

Critic James Wood, who quotes this passage in his Introduction, writes, “It is a celebrated opening: a Flaubertian precision of detail refracted through a cinematic lens; we know at once why Graham Greene called himself ‘a film man’” (vii). Wood then does a masterful job of analyzing every element of this brief paragraph to show its stunning craft:

“In a few lines, Greene establishes the terms of his locale as usefully as any movie’s opening tracking shot. He does so with considered authorial reticence, in homage to the notion that fictional narrative should show and not tell. But what, then, is shown? First, the Bedford Hotel and Bond Street. These canonical names, with their pale loyalty to the originals, tell us that we are likely to be in a British colony. Wilson’s shorts tell us the same thing, too, but they have a deeper connotation: schoolboys wear shorts. So this pale young colonial overseer, who looks down on what he rules, is less a master than a child, the white negative of the black schoolgirls he can see on the other side of the street. Indeed, Wilson’s childish knees are pressed ‘against the ironwork’ of the balcony as if confined by the ironwork of a heavy school desk. Or perhaps more sinisterly confined? It sounds as if these absurd knees might be imprisoned” (vii-viii).

Some other interpretations I make from this tiny yet incredibly dense bit of description are the voyeurism of Wilson, watching girls dress while “stroking” his mustache, even though later we find that he’s not truly moved by them, setting up his distant stance toward women. There is also the fact that we don’t know by paragraph’s end what this man dreams except that his dreaming is done while waiting for his alcohol. He is dependent on this drink, and ironic that this yearning should be noted while the Catholic Church rings its bells for Mass.

Note how Wood says Greene “tells” us through showing details. No doubt a writer deep in the trance of creation is not thinking about what his details show; he’s merely rendering whatever comes to him. But no doubt Greene stepped back at some point while drafting to ask himself, “If I begin with such a scene, what does it show my reader?” That critic’s role is one we must all play to ensure our details whisper the same themes in readers’ heads. Check out the Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition of this novel, because the Introduction alone is a wonderful welcome to Greene as author and a teacher to those of us who would want to add more riveting scene to our work.

Some might argue that showing and telling are of a piece—that it’s splitting hairs to say that a detail isn’t a direct choice to tell us something by the mere fact another detail wasn’t chosen. Yet if I conflate the two strategies I will never learn; I must separate so I can note the same strategies apparent or lacking in my writing.

In contrast to the undiluted essence of Greene’s scene, there is the hybrid storytelling method, scene and summary mixed. Some writers sew more explicit telling throughout moments of scene, like stitching patchwork quilt pieces, and when it’s well done, it’s virtually seamless because the tone and narrative voice are so pitch perfect. Summary can be a phrase or a sentence in this case, but let’s define it as clearly as scene: at its core it’s a bundle of adjectives, adverbs, and abstract nouns that generalize. This sort of diction gathers ideas and events under an umbrella, what I call a “hovering understanding” of how I as reader should comprehend the story. It is the narrative voice speaking up, raising its hand, seeing things via biased lens, whether omniscient, third person limited, etc., guiding readers to think a certain way about the characters and events.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is a book that balances summary with scene, and here’s why it works: who isn’t fascinated by foot binding, domestic violence, and “bed business”? I can’t turn away when someone starts discussing these subjects. In addition, when a topic is foreign and exotic to me, whether how men beat their women in far-flung places or the right methods for gutting a possum, many readers are willing to sit back and take direction. Tell me how it is; I’m listening.

Summary also works when the subject shares a universal truth. The bias of the telling voice doesn’t irritate when the moment can be experienced anywhere, such as a child realizing her mother doesn’t care. Note how the protagonist, Lily, describes the relationship and keeps us riveted:

Even now, after all these years, it is difficult for me to think about Mama and what I realized on that day. I saw so clearly that I was inconsequential to her. I was a third child, a second worthless girl, too little to waste to time on until it looked like I would survive my milk years. She looked at me the way all mothers look at their daughters—as a temporary visitor who was another mouth to feed and a body to dress until I went to my husband’s home. (12)

Generalizations abound here: “it is difficult for me to think” and “I was inconsequential.” The protagonist reduces herself to adjectives. I am riveted because it hurts to see a four year-old ignored.

The subject isn’t the only reason for this summary’s success: See uses specificity in generalization, seemingly oxymoronic yet required of the art. The third sentence is a series of specifics: “a third child, a second worthless girl, too little to waste time on until it looked like I would survive my milk years.” Three examples in a row to prove the unimportance of this girl. I am convinced by what is essentially a thesis statement (who says what our ninth grade English teacher taught us was wrong?). I don’t question the narrator, Lily, because her evidence is in. Summary does here what scene can’t: tells us birth order and age as well as cultural status, briefly and neatly.

Then, the excerpt closes with an effective analogy: “temporary visitor who was another mouth to feed and a body to dress until I went to my husband’s home.” Analogies, a type of figurative language, generate an immediate image. Like the cinematic strategy of scene, analogy flashes a picture at us. The reader is satisfied that this all is true and trustworthy.

This kind of summary keeps me reading. I don’t even realize I’m getting the blurb rather than the full scene where I could see the mother fully reject the daughter.

I also buy it because guess what? Prior to this summary, there was a brief scene where the mother doesn’t notice Lily’s efforts to help around the house. More evidence confirming the narrator’s argument. Seamless stiching. See could have given us only the scene, but summary is necessary to work in tandem with her camerawork. Her subject is unfamiliar to a modern American reader with different cultural assumptions about the treatment of girls. I need some telling from the professor. Sock it to me; I won’t be offended.

Tastes in reading differ widely, but for me, the writing of See and Greene fascinates. Whether it’s the cinematic immersion of Greene or the show then tell style of See, I’m in. The challenge for us as writers is to make both scene and summary happen as the story demands, and the only way we come to that understanding is by drafting, drafting, drafting. With careful attention, the truth of how each moment will be rendered floats to the surface.

Stay tuned for the next blog, where I condense these points to a checklist of what makes great summary and show how I apply these standards to my own writing.

Works Cited

Greene, Graham, and James Wood. The Heart of the Matter. Penguin Classics: New York. 2004. pp vii-vii.
See, Lisa. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Random House: New York. 2005. p 12.

Writing Goal: 150,000 – 170,000 words and a complete fourth draft ready by the AWP Award Series deadline. I also will be reviewing copy edits for the next book in my differentiated instruction series with NCTE, called Teaching Julius Caesar: A Differentiated Approach, forthcoming in spring 2010.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Elementary Prompts

• Pretend you are making a movie. Your words are like the camera, and they must capture everything you see. You are watching two people argue over something or a scene where a woman’s purse is snatched on a busy street. Describe what happens: what the people do and what they people say. Describe the setting and what the camera sees. The only thing you can’t describe is what is going on inside the characters’ heads.
• Now rewrite the scene from the point of view of one of the people who is telling us what really happened.
• Then write the scene from the point of view of the other person who is also telling us what really happened.
• Which version do you like better? Why?

Secondary and Adult Prompts

• Write a scene where two people are fighting. Write the scene three different ways: from third person objective (fly on the wall, film camera perspective), then from third-person limited (through the lens of one character), then from omniscient (through the lens of both characters and with any other editorial commentary that the godlike narrator chooses to comment). Which scene works the best? In other words, whose story is this, and why?
• Examine a piece of writing you’ve done. Highlight in yellow all the places where you show what happened: sensory description, dialogue, details, facts, and examples. Then highlight in blue all the places where you tell what happened: adjectives, adverbs, abstract nouns, generalizations, and opinion. Does your writing tend to be more showing or telling?